GOSPEL AVOIDS DIVISION
When the self-imposed laws become the tradition of a particular religious group, then a legal system of religion has been imposed on the members. The members of the group have thus become a denomination because other churches would have imposed other regulations on themselves as to how they must legally take care of orphans and widows. The different means and methods by which each group has established laws for themselves separates them from one another. They thus become denominations in their relationship with one another.
Regardless of how we might define legalism, one thing is common and central to all legalistic thought. The legalist will establish regulations on how the principles of law are to be obeyed. His regulations often digress to tradition, and then, tradition digresses to religious law. His problem then becomes his emphasis on maintaining the “doctrines and commandments of men” in order to make sure that the accepted religious laws of a particular religious group are maintained.
The problem comes when his manner or method to accomplish the principle of the law becomes law or when his way of carrying out the principle contradicts the manner or method of carrying out the same principle of law that is established by another church. Because he has in his mind determined that his way of carrying out the command is the only way it can be carried out, he judges his brother as liberal and in violation of law when he does not conform to his accepted traditional way by which he carries out the principles of law. When the traditional definition for carrying out a principle of law becomes the heritage that identifies a particular religious group, then a denomination has been born.
Add biblical ignorance to this scenario and one can see the difficulty many churches are in today. They do not know the Bible well enough to distinguish between tradition and Bible. When the freedom that we have in Christ is preached to these religious groups, the conflict comes between allowing freedom where God has not bound law. The problem in restoration, therefore, comes not in dealing with obedience to what the Bible teaches, but in giving up traditional religious marks of identity that have been accepted as law for many years.
This was the problem of the Jews in the first century when they became Christians. By the time of Jesus and the establishment of the church, many Jews found it difficult to give up those Jewish traditions that had been established that identified the “Jews’ religion.” Their answer to the conflict of giving up such traditions was to bind the traditions on the Gentiles. They thus sought to bind where God had not bound.
If we view Christianity to be a legal system of religion, then we will lay the foundation for laying burdens on members of the body as the Jewish religious leaders laid burdens on the backs of the Jews. The established methods to accomplish the prescribed principles of the law of liberty almost always become a burden to the ones who are struggling to maintain a behavioral checklist. Traditional laws continue to be bound on the consciences of brothers and sisters until a frustration level is reached.
Those disciples who have a high frustration level are usually those who are very legalistic in their religion. When one is not motivated in heart in gratitude of the gospel, he or she simply becomes frustrated with not feeling good about doing what he or she believes is the will of God. The frustrated become weary of feeling guilty about wondering if the good he does is pleasing to God. There is no peace of mind in the heart of the legalist. If there is peace, then he or she is self-righteous, believing that his self-sanctifying performance of law is accepted by God. The next step to this feeling is spiritual arrogance.
On the other hand, the one who has responded to the heart of God in obedience to the gospel knows that he can never perform enough for others to repay the debt God has cancelled in his life by grace (See Lk 17:10). He is driven by thanksgiving (See 1 Co 15:10). The legalist is driven by guilt. The one who works in thanksgiving knows he can never perform enough, thus he must trust in God’s grace. The legalist trusts in his checklist that assures him that he has checked off his responsibility toward orphans and widows. The one who is driven by the gospel knows that he can never care for enough orphans and widows. There are too many. Therefore, he must trust in the grace of God for that which he cannot do.
There is a vast difference here between legal religion and the spirit of true gospel living. One system brings frustration. The other brings peace of mind. One breeds arrogance and boasting. The other produces the fruit of humility and service. One puts a ceiling on spiritual growth. The other has no limits to which one will spiritually grow. If one can discover this difference, then the gospel of Jesus has won a victory.